Gently Down the Stream, by Evan Dicken

GentlyDownTheStreamcolor

Art by Dominic Black – http://webtentacle.blogspot.com/ – click to enlarge

This time, it took Netta eighteen years to go back to the house in the pines. It wasn’t that she was afraid, far from it, she’d just been–what was it Math had called her? Glassy–as if she were some sort of window–like not downing bottles of chardonnay between uncontrollable crying jags made her somehow more fragile. What did Math know; what did any of them know? Who had they ever lost? No, not lost–who had they ever sacrificed?

The wind laid a cool, damp hand on her cheek as she stepped down from Andre’s Dodge Ram, leaning against the door until it clicked shut. How he’d begged for the big, ugly thing, craning his neck as they passed the dealership, talking about torque and horsepower like their days were spent hauling lumber rather than trying to find a parking spot in downtown Trenton. The truck hadn’t been practical for one kid, let alone two, but Netta’s complaints had been mostly for show. She’d never denied Andre anything. What was the point? If he wanted it, deep down, it meant she wanted it, too.

Now, she was grateful for the rumbling monstrosity. Her minivan would’ve never been able to handle the muddy, tire-rutted roads that threaded the Pine Barrens. More importantly, she didn’t think she’d have been able to make it down the Garden State Parkway without checking the rear-view mirror, forcing herself to stare at the booster seats she’d emptied. Ultimately though, it wasn’t grief or shame that made her leave the van, but the creeping suspicion she would look back and feel nothing, and she wasn’t ready for that; not yet, at least.

What would Math and the others think if they knew the truth? Would they be angry, disgusted, broken? She could almost see them, bunched tight in a circle of darted glances and flashing teeth–like their kids weren’t ever going to die.

Every birth was a sacrifice.

Try as she might, Netta couldn’t hold onto the anger. Her friends’ hypocrisy was born of ignorance, of the mistaken, yet essential conceit that, with the right perspective, everything made sense. Who was she to fault their indulgence? Even lies were better than nothing.

Netta went around back of the truck, lowering the tailgate so she could hop up and unlace her shoes. She pulled them off and tossed them into the woods. Her socks followed, then, with a sigh and a shake of her head, the keys to Andre’s truck.

The mud was cold but comfortable after the closeted warmth of the truck’s cab. She wriggled her toes, water squirming up to stain the tops of her feet the murky brown of a child’s watercolor. The pines along the road were short, stubby things, but their needles were as soft as fur when Netta pushed through to walk amongst the true giants.

There had been a path when she’d come down from the house, deep and clear as the bed of a fast-flowing stream. Now, the land was smoothed over, bare but for a smothering lace of red-brown needles, so different from the pin oaks and red maple of Roebling Park where she took the kids to play. Netta’s steps came absent the raucous crackle of dry leaves, the laughter of children, jacketed and red-cheeked, light as a feather, heavy as a stone.

Anna would’ve just been coming home from school, now. Peter waiting, face and fingers pressed against the big bay window even though Netta must have told him a million times not to smudge the glass. She could almost hear his shout as the bus rumbled around the corner, the thud of his feet on the hardwood as he ran over to fling open the door to welcome his sister home. They would walk to Roebling park, chattering like idiots, then head home in time to see Andre coast into the driveway, a big, dumb grin on his face as he looked down from the cab of his idling truck.

It was as if those afternoons had worn a groove in Netta’s memory, seeming to stretch back into infinity, although she knew there couldn’t have been more than a few hundred. Still, the thinness didn’t trouble her–even faded memories were better than nothing.

Silence congealed beneath the respectful spread of evergreen boughs. But for the chill in the air it would’ve been impossible to place the season, to even guess there were seasons. Netta paused to breathe in the seeming agelessness of the place, trying to bask one last time in the imagined permanence.

Already, time and place had begun to buckle beneath the crawling chaos within her. She saw the trees fall, then grow again, new and old coterminous with the vast fungal blooms of ancient days and the strange glistening hives that would arise in distant millennia. Vast ages spread before her, unmoored from the weight of time, ephemeral as soap bubbles. She had but to raise her hand, to push against the thin skin and reality would crumble away like long-rotted wood to reveal the churning madness beneath.

Math had been right, although not about Netta, it was the world that was glassy.

The breeze rose as if to echo her thoughts, whining through the trees in breathy tremolo. Far off drums beat a manic counterpoint to the wind. Devoid of tempo or rhythm, their primal cacophony resonated within the hollow of Netta’s chest. Strange shapes moved between the trees, swept before the discord like leaves on the wind. She knew Anna and Peter would be among them, flopping and fluttering to the babbled cadences of creation.

Discordant wails surfaced like wreckage tossed upon a roiling sea. Tongueless, thoughtless, they crashed together, breaking apart and recombining into incomprehensible linguistic forms, writhing in wild, infinite permutations until at last they took the shape of words garbled through a mouthful of water.

Netta…

Natta…

Natha…

Nyatha…

Nyarlatha…

Nyarlatho…

“Not yet,” she whispered into the wind, savoring the quick breath of indecision that stilled her steps. She could still go back, dig the keys from the roadside brush and drive back into the dream, refusing to wake. Nothing would stop her.

Just like it always had.

She climbed the hill amidst the pines, bent forward to dig with hands that were increasingly less like hands into the wet, fragrant earth. The feel of it was the same as when she had tossed handfuls onto those boxes, one large, two small. There had been a crowd amidst the field of stones that day, as if numbers were proof against inevitability. Father Marconi had given voice to the unspoken questions–why so young, why so sudden, why here, why now?

Andre had asked much the same when Netta had stalked into the living room, eyes red from crying, her body already frayed around the edges. Just like Father Marconi, she had no answers, none, at least, that could satisfy. And still, even questions were better than nothing.

He hadn’t wanted to go, but what figment ever wanted the dream to end? She’d held Andre tight as he unwound, clinging to the delusion of a husband, trying to gather up the pieces of all he’d ever been. Short, but long-limbed, with broad-knuckled hands that could be hard and soft by turns. Dark hair, light eyes, a smile with a gap on the left…or was it the right? He’d dreamed of a house on the shore, of watching his kids graduate, of taking his new truck mudding around the barrens, and to maybe, just maybe, live long enough to see the Cubs win the World Series.

Dreams having dreams having dreams.

The ground leveled off. Trees pressed in around the grassy clearing like worshippers barred from touching a sacred object. The house was just as Netta remembered it: moss-covered eaves bowed beneath the weight of fallen limbs, faded vinyl siding peeling away from wood gone gray as a winter sky. The big bay window framed cataracts of murky glass, and small trees grew through cracks in the driveway. With a start, she recognized it, older and more careworn perhaps, but it was their house, or maybe it was every house?

As Netta picked her way toward the canting porch, she noticed someone watching her from the window, nose and fingers pressed to the glass. The face was thin and dark, like hers, with large, clever eyes, also like hers, but where she wore a resigned expression, the grin of the man behind the window spoke of a long vigil rewarded at last.

With a high, joyous shout, the face withdrew, and Netta waited as unseen feet thumped a rapid staccato across the creaking floorboards. He threw open the door, arms spread wide as if to embrace her.

“Welcome home, sister.” The man was tall and robed; handsome in an ageless way that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Hollywood lead or a pharaoh’s sarcophagus. He shifted from foot to foot in his excitement, hands fluttering like caged birds.

Netta inclined her head. Already she could feel her perspective slipping. She saw herself through his eyes, wild and loose-limbed, a boneless, writhing thing that was Netta, but was also the tall man, and Andre, and Anna, and Peter, and Math, and the house, and the forest, and on, and on, and on.

The tall man flinched as a cry came from upstairs. Wordless and wild, it dripped with unknown meaning, each gurgling syllable ringing with the transmutation of blind chance into eternal, heartless law.

The man gave a little wince. “He grows restless.”

“Don’t worry,” Netta moved aside to let him step from the doorway. “I’ll sit with him for a while.”

“Thank you.” He cleared the porch in a single bound. There was a flash of dark skin, of swirling robes, then he was gone, footsteps cutting a deep path down the hillside.

The cry came again, accompanied by the high, tuneless skirl of flute and drum. Liquid shadows capered upon the walls, backlit by bursts of formless creation, a riot of galaxies made and unmade within the twitching slumber of the blind creator at the top of the stairs.

Netta mounted the steps, leaning forward as if into a high wind. The dreamer waited for her beyond the landing–her father, her child–perhaps the only thing that had really ever existed. With a last, tired smile she let go of the bannister and stepped across the mindless void, parting curtains of time and space to bare the play of formless chaos beyond. As always, she wondered what it would be like to wake him, knowing all the while she never would. What figment wishes the dream to end?

Even nightmares were better than nothing.

By day, Evan Dicken studies old Japanese maps and oversees all manner of strange and amazing medical research at the Ohio State University; by night, he does neither of these things. His work has most recently appeared in: Shock Totem, DarkFuse, and Daily Science Fiction, and he has stories forthcoming from publishers such as Pseudopod, Chaosium, and Unlikely Story. Feel free to visit him at evandicken.com

If you enjoyed this story, let Evan know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Dominic Black.

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